Into the Fall
“It was not a street anymore,” Don DeLillo begins his new novel “Falling Man,” “but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” With novels such as “White Noise” and “Libra,” it was almost expected that Don DeLillo’s next book after September 11th would be about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That expectance was bolstered by an essay that appeared in Harper’s the following December. In “The Ruins of the Future,” DeLillo tries to explore the condition that America has against the rest of the world.
In 2003, DeLillo published his first post-9/11 novel “Cosmopolis,” a novel centered around a 28-year-old financial guru named Eric Packer and the various stops he makes while riding in his white stretch limo. Most critics were let down not only by the story, but by the fact that DeLillo demurred from approaching the most important event of his beloved city. Now, in 2007, comes the post-9/11 novel everyone was waiting for—”Falling Man.”
Moments before the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, Keith Neudecker walked out in a daze, a mixture of soot and blood covering his body, carrying a briefcase that did not belong to him. Though he did not know where he was going, Keith walked in a determined direction, against the chaos that was New York City. He found himself standing at the door of Lianne, his estranged wife, and their son, Justin.
In the days and weeks that followed, Keith and Lianne struggle for some kind of normalcy in their lives: Keith, the memory of the attacks heavy on his mind, relives that day and reminisces of the friends he lost from his weekly poker game; Lianne, on the other hand, is afraid that her memory is going to fail her son (19 years earlier, her father committed suicide at the onset of his Alzheimer’s). While the two resist the burden of memory, Justin and his friends search the skyline for rogue airplanes that might be under the control of Bill Lawton (a distortion of bin Ladin’s name).
To cope with the trauma, Keith beings an affair with Florence Givens, a fellow survivor whose briefcase he carried out of the tower. Their relationship, though, isn’t based on sexual attraction, but on a kind of survivor’s guilt; when they talk to one another the conversation is focused around tower and the flight of stairs they descended.
DeLillo’s sentences are as poetic and stylized as ever; they’re like Van Gogh brush strokes. Perhaps the Van Gogh analogy doesn’t seem so far off base since “Falling Man” seems to be structured less around a story and more around a sense of atmosphere that DeLillo is composing. The novel is structured around opposing images and themes: while Keith wants to forget the memories of 9/11, Lianne struggles to maintain her own ability to remember.
DeLillo might receive criticism for not focusing on the World Trade Center like he focused on Lee Harvey Oswald in “Libra,” but that’s not the purpose of this novel. DeLillo has written a novel that is concerned with how 9/11, on the one hand, disturbed domestic life and how, on the other hand, it served to bring people together, and how people do to soften the blow.